Healthy Mariota learning new offense under Vrabel, LaFleur
By TERESA M. WALKER, The Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Marcus Mariota ran to his right, looked to pass and found nobody open. So the Tennessee quarterback pump-faked, darted left and flew past rookie linebacker Harold Landry III.
Yes, Mariota is looking very healthy in the opening days of training camp.
And the quarterback from Honolulu isn’t wearing a knee brace either. It’s a perfect combination for Mariota learning yet another new offense with his third different head coach. A healthy Mariota gives the Titans the chance to maximize their offense with the quarterback going into his fourth NFL season with the team already having picked up his fifth-year option for 2019.
“To have the opportunity to go out there and get reps physically, it’s so pivotal for me,” Mariota said Friday. “You know, I’m definitely a reps guy. I’m definitely a mental guy, so when I’m out there, and I get the opportunity to practice, it means the world to me, and I think that being healthy has just given me that opportunity.”
Mariota came to Tennessee in 2015 as a Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 2 pick overall in the draft with Ken Whisenhunt as his first head coach. That relationship ended with Whisenhunt fired in November with his quarterback missing two of the first seven games with a sprained knee.
Mike Mularkey took the job for the rest of that season with Mariota missing the final two games after spraining his other knee. Mariota has missed only one game each of the past two seasons with the Titans going 9-7 in each, but the quarterback broke his right leg on Christmas Eve of 2016 . Mariota missed a loss in Miami last season after hurting a hamstring.
Mariota led the Titans to their first playoff berth since 2008 and first postseason win since January 2004 last season, and he put on a show once there.
He became the franchise’s youngest quarterback to win a playoff game, rallying the Titans from an 18-point deficit to beat Kansas City with the second-largest comeback by a road team in NFL postseason history. Mariota became the first quarterback in league history to complete a pass to himself in the postseason, catching a batted pass for a touchdown.
But Mariota ranked 30th with 3,232 yards passing last season and tied for 26th with only 13 touchdown passes leaving plenty of room for improvement.
Capitalizing on Mariota’s skills prompted controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk to fire Mularkey after a divisional playoff loss in New England and hire Mike Vrabel as his replacement. Vrabel hired Matt LaFleur, who also interviewed for the same job, as his offensive coordinator to install a scheme to maximize what Mariota can do both throwing and running with the ball.
“Who else is there that we would rather have than Marcus as our leader?” wide receiver Taywan Taylor said. “He’s the engine to this offense. He’s so poised and confident, we feed off him. He’s been our guy, so we’re looking forward to it.”
On Friday, the Titans signed two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan to a five-year extension to keep protecting Mariota. They also signed three-time Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker through 2020 to keep a favorite target around.
The biggest key for Mariota has been time not wasted this year on recovering from yet another injury. That has allowed him to work with his wide receivers throughout the offseason. He also hasn’t missed a snap as the starter during the offseason program or so far in training camp.
Mariota also has been practicing without a knee brace, perhaps the biggest sign of just how healthy he feels. Whether that continues in the regular season remains to be seen.
“Honestly, I’m not really even thinking about it …,” Mariota said. “Looking back on it, it was a long journey, and I’ll never take any of that for granted, so when I’m out here, I have an opportunity to get better with these guys, I do enjoy it.”